REVIEW: Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning

Author: Rebecca Roanhorse (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Fantasy

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unravelling clues from ancient legends, trading favours with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

There were so many things that drew me about this book. Post-climate apocalypse fantasy based around Native American folklore and culture, it sounded like nothing I’d ever read before. The fact that it had a female lead was just the icing on top of the fictional cake. I understand this book has been out in the USA for a while, but it’s not released in the UK until 26th November. For anyone who’s not picked it up, I absolutely cannot recommend it enough.

First, however, some trigger warnings. It gets violent, and the violence is brutal. It isn’t glossed over, and some of it is horrific. There’s torture, cannibalism, and the death of children. These aren’t long sections for the most part, but they’re there, and Roanhorse’s writing is so vivid that they can be difficult. It opens with Maggie being hired to find a young girl who has been kidnapped by a monster, and the narrative starts hard, dropping you directly into the action to give you a sense of the worst of things in this futuristic world.

Climate change has meant the world has flooded, while simultaneously being scorched. Most of the USA is underwater, but Dinétah, walled off from the rest of the country, is a scorched desert but has been protected from the worst of the damage as an already self-sufficient nation. But the climate disaster brought with it an awakening of old gods and monsters, and Maggie has been trained to hunt them, to kill them. Unfortunately she also comes with her own traumas and issues and struggles to trust or find her place in the world.

I’m going to say something which may sound a little out of context here, but I have spent several years frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a book like The Dresden Files, but with a woman as the main character. I enjoy The Dresden Files, but its narrative can be frustrating. It constantly discusses the relative attractiveness of every woman who appears (they’re all hot, but different kinds of hot) and also he is apparently freakishly good at identifying exactly how much makeup women are wearing. There’s also a lot of focus on how he has to be chivalrous all the time, even if the women had explicitly told him to stop. Harry Dresden is a bit of an ass.

This book gives me what I’ve been looking for. While The Dresden Files is contemporary urban fantasy, and Trail of Lightning is post-apocalyptic fantasy, the narrative style, the story structure, the exploration of existing lore and mythology and the translation of that into a system and culture of magic… Everything about it reminded me of what I enjoyed most about The Dresden Files, but it filled the gaps that I needed. It gave me a woman’s perspective, so I didn’t get a constantly bombarded by a parade of beautiful women and ugly men – the characters felt like people, and were described in a way that didn’t seem to be assessing their sexual viability constantly. Even the love interest was mostly described in passing physically until later in the book. It’s hard to explain how a book can feel so similar but be tonally so different, but there you have it. For me, this felt like the book I’ve been looking for to improve on the problems I had with another series. I’ll still read The Dresden Files, I’ve sunk an awful lot of time into finding out how it ends, but God Trail of Lightning felt like a breath of clean air. I read it in just over a day. I couldn’t put it down.

I loved Maggie, I loved how strong and principled she was, and I love that she was allowed to be aggressive and unpleasant and unlikeable. No-one tried to make her be feminine, no-one tried to make her to be smaller or more dainty. She is a force of fury and aggression, people are scared of her because she is strong. It was empowering to read about this woman who has a physical presence like that. But she’s sympathetic too. Her struggles are internal, so the reader becomes intimately acquainted with them in a way her peers aren’t. So while we read about her companions reacting to her behaviours, we know why she’s doing them, we know that she’s trying to deal with her demons, her powers, and her PTSD.

There’s a little thing as well, but I liked that she was tall, and explicitly that she was taller than Kai, the partner she reluctantly acquires. It’s not often there are stories where the woman is the taller part of a mixed-gender team, and while it’s not even really noted except for right at the start, I enjoyed it. Maggie is allowed to be the physically large, powerful presence, while Kai is described as pretty, as delicate, and acts as the mediator. It’s an absolute reversal of traditional Western gender roles and tropes (although whether the same tropes necessarily exist within Native American culture I don’t know, this set up may be common in that context), and I just loved it.

It’s these little details, mixed with the careful, casual world building as myths and magic and monsters fit in around a world where water is scarce and the environment is as hostile and dangerous as the things which go bump in the night. I loved Roanhorse’s writing and voice, I loved the collected cast of supporting characters (Tah, the elderly medicine man, is an absolute delight). Kai and Maggie’s relationship develops fantastically, and their chemistry is almost entirely my exact jam. A soft one and a grumpy one! The soft one isn’t as simple as everyone thinks! The grumpy one has hidden softness! The perfect combo of character traits.

I adored this book and I can’t wait for the next instalment to come to the UK.

Briefly:

  • A fantastic fantasy that combines post climate disaster novel with Native American mythology and folklore. I adored being introduced to legends I had only a passing knowledge of before reading, and it’s made me want to learn more.
  • You know that scene in Wonder Woman, where she’s fighting and it goes slow-mo, and zooms in to show her snapping that rifle in half across her back and you see all her muscles and it’s just about her sheer strength? This book makes me feel the way that shot made me feel. Powerful and indestructible.
  • I really enjoyed seeing the characters change and develop through the book as the different perspectives made them think differently about themselves and each other. I’m looking forward to seeing that grow in the next book.

Rating: 5/5 – going against my usual rule of not giving full marks to the first book in a series, honestly this book spoke to me in unexpected ways and got under my skin.

Trail of Lightning is released in the UK on 28th November 2019.

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